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NEWS: Pits Riot: A teaching moment (Summer 2023)

September 14th, 2023 · No Comments

A plaque in Christie Pits reminds passersby of a dark time in Toronto history worth remembering. BRIAN BURCHELL/GLEANER NEWS

By Fox Oliver

A local theatre group is telling the story of the Christie Pits Riot, which involved 10,000 people, on the same soil where it happened.

Sam Rosenthal and Drew Carnwath created the play, The Christie Pits Riot, to tell the story of Toronto’s largest race riot to students in Toronto middle schools and high schools. The play is from the perspective of Joey Rosenthal, a young Jewish boy living in Toronto during the week leading up to the Christie Pits Riot on Aug. 16, 1933. The immersive play is performed entirely outside and leads the audience throughout Christie Pits to tell the human story of the often overlooked Christie Pits Riot.

The riot, which was sparked by the unfurling of a swastika flag during a baseball game in Christie Pits, involved Jews and similarly oppressed minorities battling swastika clubs and anti-Semites. The riot was an explosion of the tension that had been building for weeks between Jews and the swastika clubs. 

Though the brawl lasted until morning and was under-policed (there were only four police officers for 10, 000 people), no one was killed and only one person was convicted.

“The riot is a part of Toronto’s history that’s never discussed; it’s just a forgotten piece of history,” said Sam Rosenthal, creator of the play. “The idea came from my dad, Joe Rosenthal, when we were talking about our family history.” Sam Rosenthal’s grandfather, of the same name, owned a drugstore at Bloor Street and Manning Avenue at the time of the riot and experienced 1930s Toronto firsthand.

Rosenthal spent a year and a half researching the riot which included holding community consultations and gathering individual stories from Jewish families in Toronto. In 2021, Rosenthal and Carnwath created an audiobook about the riot with The Hogtown Collective, a Toronto-based theatre group.

After receiving funding from the United Jewish Appeal, The Hogtown Collective was ready to perform The Christie Pits Riot for student audiences in the park. 

The play was performed eight times weekly between May 9 and June 16, mostly for Grade 8 and 9 students. The Hogtown Collective is working hard to obtain further funding so they can host performances of The Christie Pits Riot for the general public in the coming year.

“It was really important for us to humanize the story and show how it affected people day-to-day,” said Rosenthal. “This isn’t a wax museum; these are real people.” Sam Rosenthal chose a young Joey Rosenthal, inspired by his father, to be the play’s lead. Joey’s innocent questions throughout the play, such as “Why do they hate us?” and “What would you do?” connects the audience to the actors and provokes thought. 

“I [had] never heard of the riot before; I didn’t know this could even happen in Toronto,” shared Jordan, a Grade 8 student, after watching the play. “It’s important because it was really dangerous and harmful to people…and it shouldn’t happen again,” said Kaila, another student who watched the play.

In the fall of 2022, the Ontario government announced they will be implementing increased mandatory education on the Holocaust, beginning in Grade 6. “We are taking action to counter anti-Semitism and hate because those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” said Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce. 

These changes stem from the results of a study completed by Western University and Liberation75 which revealed that 33  per cent of a sample of Grade 6 to Grade 12 students believed the holocaust was fabricated, exaggerated, or didn’t happen at all. Education around the Christie Pits Riot will also be added to the curriculum for Toronto schools next year.

“Toronto is an incredibly diverse and wonderful city, but I think we all have to learn more about where we come from. Toronto has a dark side of it that has to be told, but it has to be told in a way that’s not harsh and has human and emotional appeal,” said Rosenthal. 

The 90th anniversary of the Christie Pits Riot was on Aug. 19.


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